Author Archives: clairegebben

Leap into the unknown

It’s both exciting, and nerve-wracking, to head out on an exploration without a plan. But I’ve found in the Highlands, and for that matter in book research in general, planning for the unplanned is an excellent way to go. While traveling in the Highlands, experience has taught me the true mettle of the people’s character tends to be veiled, as if hidden behind wispy, low-lying clouds. To find it, you have to enter the mist. Just as in book research, you don’t know what you’re looking for until you find it.

After my adventure exploring the valleys and byways of the River Nairn (see previous post), the following day, I hoped to make a journey along the River Findhorn (since several characters in the novel I’m researching came from parishes there). I first browsed the internet for local historic sites and museums, but turned up frustratingly little (just the usual castles and forts, not the stuff of my novel). As I got in the car on a dripping gray morning, I hesitated turning on the ignition. I could just skip it, I even thought. The gray weather made for a perfect opportunity for holing up with a good book, not for gallivanting across the countryside on verge-less roads (road shoulders in Scotland are called “verges,” which, from what I can tell, are non-existent). I checked the map one last time for Route A940, which follows the River Findhorn, then added a mental note to keep to the left side of the road at all times, then fired up the engine.

As I drove along, wincing every time a large bus or truck whooshed past within a hair’s-breadth of my little economy car, I noticed a sign for Logie Steading. Steading? It wasn’t a brown sign, like most tourist signs are in the Highlands, but offered shops and gardens and seemed open to the public, and said something about Findhorn Riverwalks, so I turned down the little lane. At the car park, I spotted Logie’s Whisky and Wine shop, and headed over to see about some samples to take home with me. Hence, encountered the Whisky Wall (the proprietor’s term for it, not mine. He invited me to take a picture).

No doubt, at this point you’re thinking: Wait, weren’t you there to research? Well, yes I was. I was also trying to keep my wits about me for driving, so I did not partake of the offered samples. (I did pick up several airplane-sized bottles to take home, naturally.) It being quite early, no one else was in the shop, so I spoke at length with the proprietor, who showed me something that would have been invaluable had I known about it from the get-go. A Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) map that gives you layers upon layers of maps — from roads to bike trails to hiking trails to topography. Double-click, and you can go in layer after layer to see the terrain, wherever you are, whatever you need to know. Amazingly helpful.

As you can see from the above, so far, I’d driven from Forres down the red route to Logie. It turned out the Logie Steading was started by Sir Alexander Grant, a baker who made his riches by inventing the, wait for it, digestive biscuit. It’s now the River Findhorn Heritage Centre, and has a terrific museum about the local people and customs throughout history. There was even a map on the wall outlining just the places I needed to visit.

First stop, Randolph’s Leap (in the Highlander’s typical flair for obfuscation, Randolph didn’t leap it, Alistair did).

The River Findhorn is especially turbulent and angry right now due to a summer of constant rain.

Next stop, Ardclach Kirk, just on the banks of the River Findhorn. Parishioners lived on both sides of the river. As there was no bridge, they had to travel across by boat, which led to several drownings.

The kirk was so low in the valley the bell could not be heard, so the enterprising Presbyterians built a belltower up above the cliff to sound the call to services, for funerals and so on.

The ochre color of the belltower may seem odd, but is actually the color of paint used in the era the tower was built, circa 1655.

Finally, I leave you with just one example of details in the Logie museum that are of use to the historical novelist. The drawing of a woman’s bonnet, with thorough description.

This woman’s bonnet is called a “mutch.”

Mutches varied from very fine ones with insets of lace, or an occasional coloured ribbon, to simple ones for everyday use or as nightcaps. … Many women had a special box in which they would carry a fresh mutch which they would put on just before reaching the church or the friends they might be visiting.

Before the mutch, women often wore the “toy,” described as “two long broad stripes of linen attached to a cap fitted closely to the head.” It makes me wonder, is this where the expression: “don’t toy with me,” comes from?

Cullen Skink, outlandish figures, and other tales

Today I traveled hither and yon on the byways of Strathnairn. Topographically, I decided “strath” must mean river valley or something, because the terrain stretched along the River Nairn. Sure enough, it does:

strath is a large valley, typically a river valley that is wide and shallow (as opposed to a glen, which is typically narrower and deep). An anglicisation of the Gaelic word srath, it is one of many that have been absorbed into the English language. (quoted from Wikipedia)

I’d asked Fiona, librarian at the Highland Archive Centre, about what she might recommend for sightseeing (other than the Culloden Battlefield and Loch Ness) in this region.

“The Clava Cairns. Have you been to them?”

Well, no, I hadn’t. They’re not quite my era of research at the moment (18th/19th centuries), they date back to 4,000 years ago, to the Bronze Age. When I arrived, attendance was sparse, the day cool and cloudy. I loved the spot, and did think of “Outlander,” but it wasn’t until I was back at my desk that I discovered the site is actually a set-jetting pilgrimage site for “Outlander” fans. As a tribute, I include this photo of two figures glimmering in the distance, just the other side of space and time …

Mind you, the stones are merely similar to the fictional Craigh na Dun stones of the “Outlander” series. But still. These are burial mounds, and for my part, my imagination was gripped by the ancestral connection between these Pictish burial mounds, and the Presbyterian church and burial site nearby in Daviot, where many of the Scottish emigrants to the Ohio River once hailed from. The names on the gravestones were eerily familiar.

After roaming the lanes of Strathnairn, where one encounters Harry Potter-style bridges and rooster and sheep road-crossings,

I hopped across A9 to the Dairy Cafe (okay, “hopping” is too offhand for the hair-raising, heart-pounding trial of having to make a left turn on a speeding carriageway, then an immediate right with lorries barreling toward you) for a steaming, delicious bowl of Cullen Skink, a creamy chowder of haddock, leeks and potatoes that soothed my soul and eased my heart back to its normal rate.

18th-century fisherfolk

I’m continually impressed by the diversity of characters living in the Highlands of Scotland in the 18th century. Yesterday, I came across a resource at the Inverness Library, a terrific summary of The Old Statistical Accounts. These accounts were sent to Sir John Sinclair in response to a lengthy questionnaire sent out to parish ministers. They often returned them with quite lengthy, colorful descriptions of their parishioners.

Here’s an example, a write-up about “fisherwives.”

The distinctiveness of the fisherfolk in the numerous fishing villages [of Scotland], especially those of the east coast, is [often] highlighted. … it is of the women that most of the ministers write. The account from Rathven, for example (taking in four fishing towns — Buckie, Port-easy, Findochtie, Port-nockie), states: ‘The fisher-wives lead a most laborious life. They assist in dragging the boats on to the beach, and in launching them. They sometimes, in frosty weather, and at unseasonable hours, carry their husbands on board, and ashore again, to keep them dry. They receive the fish from the boats, carry them fresh, or after salting, to their customers, and to market, at the distance, sometimes, of many miles, through bad roads, and in a stormy season. … many [women] are pretty, and dress to advantage on holidays.’

From “Parish Life in Eighteenth-Century Scotland: A Review of the Old Statistical Account.” Maisie Stevens, Scottish Cultural Press, 1995

What’s more, this drawing is supplied — a picture of the women carrying their fishermen:

Should you be studying your Highlander genealogy and what your ancestors may have experienced in the late 1700s, I highly recommend this book.

Maybe, maybe not

The story goes that my 4x-great grandfather was born on the Culloden moor in April of 1746, just before the Battle of Culloden. That information appeared in a typed history found in the family Bible. A visit to the Culloden Visitor Centre, however, revealed no such dwellings, just an empty, windswept moor (except for the Leanach House, a kind of memorial with a grisly history I won’t go into for the moment). The Culloden House, a large mansion of the Forbes family, was located on the moor, but burned down long ago.

At the Culloden Visitor Centre, I did find an old painting of the battle that showed the Culloden House with some small dwellings beside it. So as I’ve been researching in Invernessshire on the old ancestral turf, I’ve been keeping an eye out for records of the Forbes estate. I was thinking maybe the people in the dwellings on the moor worked for the Forbes estate? But so far, nothing like that has turned up.

Then yesterday, I was idly flipping through material on the bookshelves and happened upon a little one shilling booklet printed called Culloden Moor and Clava Circles. In it I came across a fold out map of the battlefield as drawn in 1746 by the military in command that day. And lo and behold, some wee cottage dwellings were drawn in, a number 3. by them designating them as dwellings of the Balvraid [Balvaird] Farm. And another two dwellings with the number 2. beside them designating them as the Culchunaig Farm.


(I’m only showing a partial image to give you an idea, as I’m not permitted to show the full image per photography restrictions here at the Archive.)
I’m trying not to get too excited, but it’s fun to speculate. Here in the Highland Archive Centre I’ve come across letters of the McIntoshes of Balnespicke and Balvaird. Could it be the lost is found? There are *so many* McIntosh families in this area, it’s nice to be able to narrow it down in scope. Then again, maybe not.

Regardless, it feels to me as if the existence of this Balvraid/Balvaird Farm on the Culloden Moor supports the story tucked away in our family Bible all these years.

You know you’re in Scotland when …

  • Baked tomatoes are served at breakfast
  • Eggs in the store are found on the shelf, not refrigerated
  • Chardonnay is commonly served at room temperature
  • Cellphone and internet are spotty at best
  • Rainbows appear so often no one bothers to exclaim
  • A good beer is hard to find, the Scotch, on the other hand, is plentiful

 

Research is proceeding apace

Before heading off on this journey, I was nervous I wouldn’t find what I’m looking for. First person accounts by Scottish immigrants to the Ohio River area in the early 1800’s make mention of events — shipwrecks, infant births and deaths, ancestors signing the Covenant in their own blood — which I’m finding it difficult to verify.

The family history account of Duncan and Nancy Fraser begins thus:

Not wishing to rear his family in Scotland (after three of his uncles had been burned at the stake for their faith in Christ), Duncan Fraser (who was tailor to Lord Cavanough [sic]) started to America with his wife Nancy (both were Highland Scots from near Edinborough [sic]) and their four children — three girls and a boy, Daniel, in the year 1804.

It’s a mystery … since this account is about the turn of the 18th to the 19th century, the reference to three uncles burned at the stake for their faith in Christ seems out of place. The Covenant martyrdoms happened in the previous century, in the 1600s, didn’t they? So was this account referring to great uncles? or to 2x- or 3x-great uncles?

One place I hoped to glean more insights was at the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh. I only had two days to spend, so prepared as much as I could in advance. Users of the library have to apply for a library card. I saved time by registering online here. I still needed to show an identification with my current address, but the process of getting a card definitely went more quickly.

Once in the library reading room, I began at the enquiries desk. If you want to take photos (which I did), I had to fill out paperwork and display a yellow card. First thing, I used the main catalogue to order documents not available on the open shelves (most of them), as it can take up to an hour for the material to be brought out.

And here’s where I messed up. The order slip in Special Collections had a blank for specifying my table number. Hence, I assumed materials would be delivered to my table, a common practice at other libraries. I sat waiting for a full hour before going up to make an inquiry (enquiry), only to learn I had was supposed to pick it up at the desk. My material had been there all along.

So, about those martyrs. Not sure I’ve found the event, but the book Martyrs and Heroes of the Scottish Covenant by George Gilfillan did a beautiful job of clueing me into the power struggles of the Scottish reformation. About Duncan Fraser’s “uncles,” however, I haven’t scored any specifics. It’s a tangent, anyway, not the main focus of this immigration tale. I was mainly interested in the historical context, and found great resources and voices.

Not in the National Library, but on the internet, I found a website indicating that 95 people in Edinburgh were executed for their faith in Christ in the 1600’s. What’s more, it’s estimated that “perhaps 30,000 may have died for their beliefs and Presbytery during the whole of the Scottish Reformation.”

Football, cricket, bowling

My first full day in Forres, at the house where I’m staying, the electrician was drilling a hole through a thick block of sandstone to install a new wall socket in the foyer. To escape the incessant whining sound, and to walk her dog, my host and I went on a walk through a forested park near town and then to a pub for lunch. Fine with me. Afterward, we strolled through another park with stunning, expansive lawns. (They revere their lawns in Scotland in a way I’m only just beginning to grasp.)

We’d just passed a school letting out, and I seen a few young kids in soccer outfits (excuse me, football outfits), so I asked if that was a football field.

“Cricket,” my host said. She gestured to the field to our right, the field before us, and the field to our left, designating: “Football. Cricket. Bowling.”

“Bowling? Outside?!”

She stared at me, appalled. “You mean, you don’t bowl in America?”

“Sure we do, only we do it inside. With lanes and pins. I never heard of outdoor bowling.”

“Oh, well, you’re not missing much. Bowling is all about the grass. It has to be just perfect, as smooth as a billiard table, and it’s always played by stout old people all dressed in white from head to foot. Everything in white. And they take it so seriously.”

“How’s it played? Is it something like bocce ball?”

“I have no idea, it’s way too boring, I’ve never watched them actually play a game to find out.”

We went over to peek at the field; I was disappointed a game wasn’t on just then. Hence, all I have to offer is a picture of what looks to me like a perfect bowling green.

Willy-nilly to Wally Monnie and beyond

Since Moniack Mhor, I’ve been traveling willy-nilly from Inverness to Stirling to Glasgow to Forres. One reason being, I have a Spirit of Scotland Travelpass, which means I can take the train anywhere I want for 8 days out of the next 15. So, why not?

First, I hied it down to Stirling to see friends, who introduced me to all kinds of Scottish treats, including the Wallace Monument (Wally Monnie) and duck pie.

The top of Abbey Craig, where the Wallace Monument stands, offers a terrific view of the Ochil Hills and Ben Lomond.

Plus, my host Ken took me down a “secret path” to a dizzying cliff where he used to rock-climb, that is until someone pulled loose rocks that fell on passing cars on the road down below, which put an end to that climbing wall.

Next I zoomed south to Glasgow for a quick stop-in at University of Glasgow and the Hunterian galleries. A feature at The Hunterian was this Harry Potter-style chair called The Blackstone, an ornately carved wooden chair with a stone inlaid in the seat. The placard explains: “From the foundation of the University of Glasgow in 1451 until the middle of the 19th century all students were examined orally, seated on the Black Stone. This slab of dolerite is now embedded in an oak chair made in 1775-6. At the top is a time-glass surrounded by bay leaves. As the examination began, the Bedellus bearing the mace set the time-glass and after about 20 minutes, when all the sand had flowed through, grounded the mace with the word Fluxit (“it has flowed through”). He then turned to the senior examiner with the words “Ad alium, Domine (“On to the next one, Sir”).

After a mere couple of hours in Glasgow, Scotrail whisked me back north to Forres, the former seat of MacBeth.

“A shieling on the braes”

Last Thursday afternoon at Moniack, a group of us signed up for a hike. I expected the trek to be stepping out the front door — there were plenty of scenic hillsides near Moniack Mhor all around. Instead, though, we divided up and hopped into cars to get to the Abriachan Forest Paths, about ten minutes away.

“We have a choice of where to go,” the guide said. “To a forest of tall old trees, or up a bit to see a shieling.”

“Oh, a shieling!” I put in before anyone else had a chance. “I’d love to see one.”

No one objected, although I had a hunch most had never heard of shielings. I knew about them because of a description in Alistair Moffatt’s “Highland Clans.”

In springtime clansmen undertook the ancient journey of transhumance, driving their black cattle and sheep up the hill trails to the high pastures and the shielings. These were temporary huts and in the light northern nights they were where herdsmen (often women and children) summered out with their animals in the mountains. In Gaelic the shielings were known as summertowns and the clachans as wintertowns. Around the cooking fires in the high pasture tales were told, songs sung and away from the older people, understandings exchanged.

I had pictured a shieling as a wooden lean-to structure. No doubt the style of them varies from region to region. This shieling had a turf roof, so it blended well into the heather.

Haggis and a wee dram

The culmination of the fiction retreat at Moniack occurred with a dinner of haggis and clapshot, a menu designed, I was informed by the Scotsman next to me, to line the stomach for an evening of whisky drinking.

The haggis was served with “Burns Supper”  ceremony — the “piping in of guests” by Hamish, and the “Address to a Haggis.” Thanks to Harpal for providing this photo.